Roles of Monsters: Stealth

Stealth is one of the more interesting roles in many class-based multiplayer shooters, such as the Infiltrator in Planetside, Tribes: Ascend and Quake Wars (Infiltrator is a pretty popular name, apparently), or the Spy in Team Fortress 2. While not too many single-player shooters have them, there are a few stealth-based monsters that bring interesting new ideas to the table. Similar to my article on kamikazes, this isn’t exactly a role in and of itself. It’s more like a modifier you can apply on top of another role, but there are some things to consider when you add some kind of stealth ability to a monster. I’ve wanted to write this article for a while simply because I really wanted to do the research and figure out exactly how these things work.

Veil Assassin, from Wolfenstein 2009

The Veil Assassin from Wolf ’09 is probably one of the most successful stealth monsters I’ve ever seen, and one of the most successful shockers despite a few balance problems. There aren’t many monsters that set me crouching in the corner of a room waiting for it to appear as soon as I hear it, but this is one of them. The Veil Assassin is completely invisible unless the player enters Veil mode (but that drains energy), and I’m pretty sure it can teleport away though I didn’t notice that much if it can. In more open areas, it has a habit of coming after you from an angle you don’t expect, and though it only had melee attacks it could potentially kill you in two hits. The time-slow and shield gimmicks from Wolf ’09 made it way too easy (the balance in that game was not incredible, to be honest), but overall it was a great monster besides that.

It could be invisibility, it could be the ability to teleport around, it could be something else I haven’t thought of, but a stealth monster always has some quality to mask where it is or what it’s doing. As you might expect, it can be a good way to make a monster be more of a shocker. Stealth monsters aren’t necessarily shockers and shockers aren’t necessarily stealth monsters, but it’s a mechanic that helps. The old adage is that people fear what they don’t know, and invisibility is a good gimmick to either ensure that people don’t learn what a particular monster does as easily (I still don’t quite know exactly what the Veil Assassin does, since I only played through Wolf ’09 once and they didn’t appear often), or so even when they do know what the monster does, still hide where it is or what angle it’s coming from. This can be handy to keep a monster an effective shocker through multiple encounters. However, like the Fiend from Quake 1, Berserker from Quake 4 or other similar monsters show, that’s not a requirement for a shocker.

Stealth Elite, from Halo

I did talk about Elites in the previous article, and talked a bit about variation on threat-type monsters. The Stealth Elite is a version that acts much the same, except it’s almost invisible. If you look closely, you can see a faint outline of them, but if they aren’t moving it can be hard to spot them before they start trying to melt you. Their disadvantage, though, is that they don’t have the defensive shield the other Elites have, so they’re  killed more easily once you finally get a bead on them.

The stealth variant is also a lot more aggressive than most of the other Elites. As soon as it sees you, it starts filling the air with more rapid plasma fire than the blue and red variants and doesn’t waste as much time on sight animations as they do. Hilariously enough, many stealth monsters can be incredibly in-your-face with high aggression or high-damage attacks. Imagine the first fight with Stealth Elites in the Silent Cartographer map in Halo 1; the player’s coming back through a building he’s already cleared out after completing one objective. Once he enters the larger room, he starts taking plasma fire from targets he can’t easily see at close-ish range. On his first time through the game, the player would likely be very surprised by this. This creates a similar effect as a shocker through sheer surprise without having an actual shocker monster. It can be done with ambushes with non-stealth and non-shocker monsters, but stealth monsters can do it a lot better because the player just might not notice it until he gets over that surprise.

Many monsters have a sort of introduction so the player can start guessing how to deal with them, and some monster types almost require one. However, stealth monsters don’t really give you the chance to get to know them very well because by definition, they try to be unknown. These two ideas don’t have to come into conflict, you can give a brief introduction somehow without completely ruining a stealth-based shocker. The Veil Assassin had a small chunk of the first map you encounter it as an introduction to show the player what it can do through scripted events. It went invisible, slaughtered a few people, teleported away, and even took a quick slash at the player and ran off. With its very high damage attacks, it would’ve been incredibly unfair if the game just sprung it on you without any lead-in. It showed what it was capable of, but by the way the Veil Assassin works, its stealth abilities still leave it unpredictable in actual combat. The Stealth Elite didn’t have any such scripted introduction, but it works really well because it’s a variation of an existing monster with a new twist. The player, having fought normal Elites for the last few maps, already has a good idea what these new monsters are capable of, but has to approach them a new way because of that twist.

Wraith, from Red Faction: Armageddon

About halfway through Red Faction: Armageddon, the player runs into the Wraith. It was only encountered a few times in the single-player game but is used a lot better in the multiplayer Invasion mode. It spends most of the fight invisible and changing positions, but after a few seconds it appears attached to a wall or somewhere in a corner, charges for a short time and launches a powerful blast of energy. Immediately after, it cloaks and moves around again. In the campaign it’s only encountered alone, but it’s used to support other monsters a lot in Invasion. It also blurs your screen slightly while it’s alive, maybe making it less likely for the player to notice it while it’s charging for an attack, but it’s a minor effect.

Another thing the Wraith does in the campaign is block the exits of the area until it’s dead. Some people assume this is just to make set-piece arena fights, but the major reason is because of the downtime in the fight itself. There’s a good seven seconds at a time where the Wraith is cloaked, moving around, and where other monsters aren’t attacking you. If it didn’t block you in, you could walk past it and ignore it. Monsters that can’t be fought for periods of time like this have this problem because something needs to hold the player down while the stealth monster itself can’t be fought. In Invasion, it doesn’t even bother with that, because there are always other things to worry about while the Wraith is invisible. The more aggressive a stealth monster is, and the less downtime a fight has, the less likely a player is to outright ignore it. The Stealth Elite is much harder to ignore because of all the fire it throws as soon as it sees you, and the Veil Assassin can’t be ignored, partly because it’s taunting you for the whole fight and partly because of the amount of damage it can do. You can still make stealth monsters with this kind of downtime, but you have to be careful that the player can’t just skip it or ignore it somehow; either with other monsters holding the player down for the duration, or something else. I don’t agree with blocking the player in like the Wraith, however, does because that whole thing felt so artificial.

These three monsters are pretty low health, but they’re hard to see coming. For the Stealth Elite and Wraith (monsters that aren’t really shockers), you can look at their stealth effect as a kind of damage mitigation. Until you finally spot it clearly, it’s hard to get any solid hits on the Stealth Elite. The Wraith’s ability to cloak and switch position buys time for it to charge its attack and cloak again. For stealth monsters that attack in groups (or at least can attack in groups), these stealth gimmicks can also hide numbers. The fight at the end of the Silent Cartographer map, for example, you see fire coming from different sides of the hallway from Stealth Elites, but you really have no clue exactly how many there are. Depending on their effect, stealth monsters can be somewhat tricky to kill even if they aren’t tanky.

There’s a small trap you can fall into with stealth monsters. Imagine you’re using stealth as damage mitigation, so the monster doesn’t have much health, and it’s pretty aggressive. That can be the exact definition of a glass cannon, but with one more factor to balance; visibility. If it does too much damage, the player could die before he even notices it; if it doesn’t have enough health, the player can spot it and immediately kill it before it does anything. The Stealth Elite was pretty well-balanced (especially since it was a variation on an already well-balanced monster), but the Veil Assassin had problems. It did broadcast that it was around by taunting the player, which worked perfectly, but it was completely invisible unless the player was using one of the Veil power gimmicks, during which it stood out like a sore thumb. If the player used powers like Empower or Mire, it can die really quickly before it does anything at all. If the player never noticed the Assassin, he could die incredibly quickly without a way of dealing with it. Despite that, it was a good monster, and would’ve been great if it didn’t have these problems and was used in the game a lot more often. Keep all three factors, health, visibility and damage, in mind when you’re designing monsters like this.

The monsters I’ve listed work pretty well alone or grouped with other monsters of their type, but stealth monsters also work well grouped with other monsters. If those other monsters get your attention before the stealth monster is revealed, then it works even better. In Halo 1, towards the end of Two Betrayals where you’re trying to fight past an army to get to a vehicle at the end of the valley (I did an article on this fight), it’s very easy to start fighting the army itself and not notice some Stealth Elites come around behind you. Stealth isn’t really a role, either; just a gimmick to help a monster do what it does even better. So when you work stealth monsters into encounters with other roles, consider roles that stealth monster might fit into.

There aren’t very many stealth monsters and fewer still are used really well. While the three I used here as examples were good, there’s a lot of potential here to interact with other roles, either with stealth gimmicks on those roles or stealth monsters interacting with monsters that fill those roles. I feel like stealth monsters haven’t entirely been fleshed out well enough, and I’d love to see more in the future.

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